PhD candidate takes UM to court
MAASTRICHT. A Maastricht professor of Cardiology is accused of academic fraud by her former PhD candidate. She is alleged to have falsified data and to have doctored pictures to make them look better in subsidy applications. The case is currently with Maastricht University’s Committee for Scientific Integrity. At the same time, the PhD candidate is taking the university to court because of a labour conflict. The case was heard in Roermond last Tuesday. Her promotor had denied her access to the laboratory by confiscating her keys. This meant that she had to stop her experiments.
The alleged academic fraud was only briefly referred to during the session and the judge did not wish to deal with it in detail. On Tuesday, the case was about the confiscation of the lab keys, almost a year ago. The question is whether this was justified. Did the promotor have the right to do so? The solicitor of the 29-year-old PhD candidate Eleni Liapi, born and raised in Greece, demanded immediate access to the lab so that she could complete her thesis. Liapi feels that her former promotor, who was also present in the courtroom, ‘branded’ her as “unwanted”, because she had discovered the fraudulent practices.
In the courtroom, Liapi states: “She not only took my keys from me, she also made sure that my name was deleted from the secretariat’s group mailing list, that I no longer had access to the cardiology server where I had found the falsified data. In addition, I was asked to resign six months before the end of my contract [May 2020].” Maastricht University’s solicitor wants to wait until the procedure with the Committee for Scientific Integrity has been completed, but insists on stating that it has not been proven that the professor has been dishonest. “That procedure is still on-going, as is the one by the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority”. This national organisation has started its own investigation on behalf of Liapi, whom the DWA has officially recognised as a whistle-blower. In addition, the UM’s solicitor dismisses the claimed ‘pattern of isolation’ as nonsense. “Denying access is not isolation.” About the confiscation of the keys, he states that there was a ‘neutral’ reason, because Liapi no longer had a supervisor. The promotor had ceased the day-to-day supervision a few months before. And without supervisor, Liapi was supposed to have no business in the lab. The promotor said in court that she no longer trusted her student. “ I expected that she would enter without permission.” She did stay on as a promotor, but was ‘dismissed’ from this position by Liapi this summer. The labour relations were seriously disturbed.
In June 2016 Liapi was appointed as a PhD candidate at Carim, the School for Cardiovascular Diseases. Liapi studied Biology in Greece and completed a master’s of Forensic Science in the Uppsala University’s Biomedical Centre in Sweden. She wants to obtain a PhD on the basis of research into non-coding RNAs (molecules) and their role in heart failure. She is still looking for a new promotor at UM. Forensic psychologist and professor Harald Merckelbach has been assigned as mediator by the Executive Board. This process will (formally) end this week. The court had hoped that the case could be postponed until this process was completed – “a solution is in sight” – but Liapi objected. She wanted the case to be discussed last Tuesday and awaits a legal verdict.
“Do you understand that, since February, when her keys were confiscated, my client has been in a predicament? That she’s sick and tired of it? She cannot wait any longer,” says Liapi’s solicitor. He doubts whether the promotor was entitled to take the lab keys – which is what this legal case is about. Nevertheless, the Executive Board supports the promotor’s actions, it appears.
The judge finds it a difficult case. “I have trouble getting to grips with the main theme, apart from all those e-mails that I cannot make head or tail of.” She will return a verdict in two weeks’ time – unless a solution has been presented before that.
What about the alleged academic fraud by the promotor, a professor of Cardiology? PhD candidate Liapi approached the editors of Observant with this story at the beginning of September. At that time, she had already lodged her formal complaint with the Committee for Scientific Integrity. She presented us with a long list of accusations of dubious research practices, backed by e-mails and other documents. She calls the fraud “repetitive” and reported it, she says, because she is committed to science, not because of any grudge against the professor and her colleagues, whom she also blames for having ‘looked away’.
The professor is supposed to have manipulated images and in doing so, to have made subsidy applications to, among others, the European Research Council and ZonMW look better. She is also said to have presented the results from a study on kidney cells (carried out by Liapi) as if they concerned heart cells. The latter was in October 2017. A year later, Liapi noticed in a subsidy application that the name of the biomedical technique that had been applied, was adapted. The method that was actually used, was much simpler and less labour-intensive. In both cases, the explanation of the promotor was: an unintended mistake.
Last summer, another case of data fraud was added, according to Liapi. In a PhD thesis of one of her predecessors with this promotor, an original picture of a blot (a biomedical technique that can be used to find a specific protein) had been reused, but this time with ‘adapted’ labels. Liapi claims that it has been deliberately manipulated. She says that there are more things wrong with this thesis, which has been published in printed form, but is not yet available online in full. For example, a co-author has been listed in a chapter that has not yet been published online: Wolfgang Poller, professor of Cardiology with Charité in Berlin, who – when asked by Observant – says that he doesn’t even know that he has been listed as co-author. He has never even heard of the thesis and calls it all a strange course of events.
Liapi’s allegations are detailed and concern a specialist discipline: molecular biology. Observant asked eight foreign experts what they thought about this case and received replies from a few. One of these, molecular biologist Rune Linding, working in Berlin, feels that it sounds like data manipulation and believes that an investigation is certainly justified if there is enough evidence. Leonid Schneider, a German cell biologist, currently a scientific journalist who writes a lot about integrity issues, is clear: this is “deliberate data manipulation”. (A follow up with more experts' analysis)
The procedure with the Committee for Scientific Integrity (CSI) is another thing Liapi is not happy about. It doesn’t adhere to the established terms; it is true that their advice is taking longer than the official rules state. In addition, she calls the committee biased, because emeritus professor Harry Struijker Boudier, one of the three members – alongside Cees Flinterman (Human Rights) and Wiel Kusters (Literature) – was scientific director for Carim for years (1996-2006).
Liapi has meanwhile changed her attitude towards Observant. She suggests that the editorial board is in league with the supervisor and the Executive Board.
While she was waiting for the judgment of CSI, Liapi posted her accusations on Twitter shortly before Christmas. In some tweets, she calls the professor involved by name. “Highly prejudicial,” claims the UM’s solicitor in court on Tuesday. The messages are “very sensitive”. According to the solicitor, the Executive Board wants to wait for the outcome of the court case, and has therefore not taken any formal decision yet, but finds the statements on social media “highly undesirable”. Liapi wrote, among other things: “How can they prove it [cyberattack] is not another convenient inside job” and “UM also silences what is inconvenient.” Or: “Let us remind @MaastrichtU of their fraud. We don not need your pathetic IT systems. The public deserves to know.” The tweets were explicitly directed at rector Rianne Letschert, Promovendi Netwerk Nederland, the UM, the Hartstichting and many media representatives. Liapi herself said in court that she could no longer keep this to herself. “The UM does not respect deadlines, or my work. The public should know this.”
The professor has declined to respond to questions by Observant. She wants to wait for the court’s verdict and the CSI's advice.
With assistance from Maurice Timmermans